Reagan National Airport has a major impact on the economy of Arlington County -- just not the same kind of impact that Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International have on their regions.
There is relatively little cargo traffic flown into and out of National -- about 6.8 million pounds of freight last year, compared with 590 million pounds at Dulles. Dulles has extensive warehousing and cargo distribution infrastructure where National does not.
But while there is relatively little cargo on the planes flying in and out of National, there are many people on those planes -- 14 million in 2003, compared to 17 million at Dulles, even though Dulles is a far larger airport. Those travelers support a bustling travel-related business in the area immediately surrounding the airport.
There are about 5,300 hotel rooms in Crystal City and Pentagon City, according to the Arlington Department of Economic Development, that owe their existence largely to their proximity to National. Countless restaurants, taxi services and other businesses also depend on travelers.
"The truth is, the airport is one of the three biggest economic engines we have in this community, the federal government and Metro being the other two," said Richard V. Doud Jr., president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
National's status as primarily a passenger airport has to do with its geography. It occupies 733 acres of land; Dulles occupies 11,000 acres. There is no extra space at National for hangars and light industrial facilities that might take advantage of being on airport property. Furthermore National has no international flights and only a handful of flights to the western United States. Many of its flights are on small commuter planes that zip back and forth to small East Coast cities.
Its location -- just across the Potomac from the District -- means that the development that has sprung up around the airport is mainly high-rise office buildings occupied by defense contractors and government agencies, huge hotels and apartment buildings, rather than low-to-the ground shipping facilities.
"National is a very constrained airport," said Terry Holzheimer, director of business investment for Arlington Economic Development. "Dulles has additional infrastructure of the air cargo industry that we don't."
"The ground is just too expensive for warehousing," Doud said.
But just because economic development in Arlington is not based on businesses tied directly to the airport does not mean it does not play a role in the county's growth.
"We think of the airport as a huge selling point," Holzheimer said. For example, he said, Boeing Co., which has its headquarters in Chicago, has major facilities in Crystal City, which is just a quick flight away.
Holzheimer said he once was pitching Arlington County to a prospect. They were meeting in the Courthouse area. Holzheimer told him it would be only a seven-minute drive to the airport, even in rush hour. The prospect bet him it would take longer.
"We got in the car, and seven minutes later we were at the gate," Holzheimer said. "It's a real competitive advantage for economic development."